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Lights, camera, action for a Gaelic winter

Less live games, less fans and a congested schedule - the challenges facing RTÉ and Sky

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MATCH OF THE DAY: Old foes Tyrone and Donegal meet in the Ulster SFC quarter-final knockout match

MATCH OF THE DAY: Old foes Tyrone and Donegal meet in the Ulster SFC quarter-final knockout match

MATCH OF THE DAY: Old foes Tyrone and Donegal meet in the Ulster SFC quarter-final knockout match

This is already the weirdest year any of us can remember. Come autumn, it will get a whole lot stranger still.

A GAA championship from late October until six days before Christmas … all run over nine weekends, at limited venues, most likely in front of reduced spectator numbers.

Many diehards won't see their county in the flesh because of constricted capacities. Others who can travel won't because of health fears. In which case the role of live TV coverage will never be more important.

"It's going to be congested," says RTÉ head of sport Declan McBennett. "It's going to be logistically difficult. But it all makes for a fantastic three-month period.

"With every difficulty comes an opportunity," he adds. "You could have wall-to-wall national and international events taking place if the public health situation allows it."

Or, as Sky's director of multi sports Georgie Faulkner puts it: "We've had no sport for too long. Everyone at Sky Sports is just like, 'Bring it on.'"

Sport may be intrinsic to the health of a nation but, perversely, it threatens to see us all morph into couch potatoes once the clocks go back. The flip side of the lockdown is the logjam it creates once elite sport returns en masse and multiple codes start jockeying for a finite number of TV slots.

Wonderland

Both RTÉ and Sky Sports are gearing up for an All-Ireland winter wonderland. Bringing these games into our living rooms promises to challenge them in ways that could never have been envisaged in a pre-Covid world.

And the sad reality is that some games - maybe not the most box-office but huge attractions all the same - will not be broadcast live. Do the maths: it simply won't be possible.

Before the old championship formats and schedules were shredded, RTÉ had the 'live' rights to 31 matches. Sky had 14 exclusive slots but also had simulcast rights to another six - the four All-Ireland senior semi-finals and two finals.

All changed. Now there will be no provincial round-robins in hurling (a huge draw over the previous two summers), no football qualifiers and no 'Super 8s'.

McBennett doesn't delve into specifics but concedes that the RTÉ allocation will be "significantly reduced".

"If you look at the numbers and the weekends, in all likelihood we will be impacted as well," echoes Sky producer Ciaran O'Hara.

The word from Croke Park is that finalising the schedule is at an advanced stage, and it is likely to be unveiled later this month.

Delve deeper and you can see why it might be taking some time. This year's championship will start with two provincial hurling quarter-finals on October 24-25.

"Week one from a GAA perspective is manageable," says McBennett. Likewise the last four weekends, embracing hurling semi-finals (November 28-29), football semi-finals (December 5-6), the senior hurling final in tandem with the Joe McDonagh Cup decider (December 13) and the Sam Maguire football showpiece (December 19).

"The key squeeze comes in the middle four weeks," McBennett adds, "where you have a multitude of games and a finite number of broadcast slots."

In a normal summer, you might have four live GAA slots across a weekend - two allotted to Sky on Saturday evening, two to RTÉ on Sunday afternoon. You could squeeze a fifth into Saturday afternoon. "Traditionally the GAA have been reluctant to do that," says McBennett. "But this year I think may be slightly different."

Contenders

November will be a month like no other in GAA history. The weekend of October 31-November 1 incorporates four provincial hurling semi-finals - all huge in their own right. Now add ten straight knockout football fixtures, none bigger than the Ulster quarter-final collision of Donegal and Tyrone, both "quite legitimately considered All-Ireland contenders", according to McBennett.

"We have obviously requested Donegal/Tyrone because outside of Cork and Kerry and then provincial finals, it's arguably the biggest (football) game that there is," he says.

"Because of the knockout nature of the championship, that's do-or-die. You're back to Celtic Park in '94, that kind of territory in terms of evoking memories of Derry and Down, All-Ireland contenders going head-to-head - and somebody goes on and somebody goes home."

Similar congestion repeats itself through the following weeks. On November 7-8 you have another football showstopper in Cork/Kerry; Dublin's first leg in the search for six (against Westmeath); a potential Roscommon/Mayo clash; and two do-or-die hurling qualifiers.

November 14-15 is another smorgasbord: two provincial hurling finals; two hurling qualifiers; a Connacht football final; football semi-finals in Ulster and Leinster.

The last chaotic weekend is November 21-22, with two hurling quarter-finals and a Leinster football final (along with the Bloody Sunday commemoration) on the Saturday, followed by the Munster and Ulster football finals on the Sunday.

If only GAA was the only live attraction as the nights close in. RTÉ has many more televised commitments, most notably domestic soccer (the climax of the Airtricity League followed in November by the last three rounds of the 100th FAI Cup) and rugby (the conclusion of the women's and U20 Six Nations followed by the new-look November internationals, an eight-team tournament played over four weekends).

At least local soccer has a non-GAA Friday night home, whereas finalising rugby internationals "becomes a very complex jigsaw" when dealing with overseas TV companies.

By November, the Premier League will be back at full speed - fans or no fans.

This is but one of numerous live events in the Sky Sports arsenal but it has the advantage of multiple channels, with Arena and Action most likely to host GAA matches.

"We have 11 channels," says Georgie Faulkner. "That's where we probably have a huge advantage over a lot of broadcasters. We've just got a lot of space."

Other complications? You don't need floodlights on a Saturday night in July; you will in November. Straight away, venues like Clones, Nowlan Park and Pearse Stadium are only potential options for an early afternoon throw-in.

Distancing

TV sport while co-commentators and crew abide by social distancing. The manning of outside broadcast trucks poses a big logistical challenge, but RTÉ and Sky are both committed to ensuring a completely safe working environment.

Yet as Declan McBennett admits: "The more people you put on site, the more difficult it becomes. Social distancing is possible, but it's very difficult and incurs great expense."

The RTÉ chief cites last weekend's experience: "On Friday we did broadcast and have commentators in Oriel Park (for Dundalk v St Pat's); but on Saturday we chose to do the club game from Cork (the hurlers of Glen Rovers v St Finbarr's) in our studio."

Yet ultimately, in this year like no other, broadcasting the championship into our homes will be worth the hassle.

"There is a public service element to this," McBennett stresses. "There will be people who simply cannot attend.

"There will be people who may be in a position to attend but may not feel comfortable to attend, particularly those in a certain generation who would obviously be very loyal to the games ... but they may not feel comfortable in a crowded environment. So, I think TV coverage becomes absolutely fundamental."